In April of 1997, I was scheduled to be one of 37 magicians from around the world to compete in the Shanghai International Magic Festival and Competition held in Shanghai, China.
The organizers had originally planned that I arrive the day before the competition which was not satisfactory to me. Between getting over jet-lag, finding my way around, getting used to the food and wanting to rehearse new material, I was going to need more time if I wanted to give a finished performance. We agreed that I would arrive eight days before the competition was scheduled to take place.
Needless to say, that also gave me plenty of time to relax and do some sightseeing before I had to crack down and get to work. The first fellow competitor I met was a woman from New Zealand, Tania Nordick. Except for the organizers, we each didn’t know anyone else in the hotel so we thought it might be fun to do some sightseeing together.
Upon receiving some advice from the hotel front desk as to the best places for shopping, we went out in search of a taxi. We found one without much difficulty and gave the driver a card, written in Chinese saying where we wanted to go, and were off. Coming from New York City, I was used to some hair-raising taxi rides, but Shanghai drivers put them to shame. Both of us would have felt a bit safer if there were seat belts available, but no such luck. We soon found out taxis were cheap (like most everything else in Shanghai) and a 45 minute ride for the two of us came out to the equivalent of $4.30! In New York City, that would get you about an 8 minute ride.
When we got out of the taxi, we soon realized that the ride had been relatively safe compared to trying to cross the street! Dodging bicycles, cars, pushcarts and pedestrians, was no easy matter even though the streets were quite narrow. We entered the recommended department store, “The Friendship Store,” and found out that it is one of the biggest tourist centers, very expensive and run by the government. We agreed to split up and would meet each other out front in an hour.
Browsing through this Chinese department store with all of it’s wonderful and colorful pottery, silk scarves, beautiful fans, etc. made me almost wish I was still doing my oriental act from 10 years ago. What a perfect place for props! It reminded me of how so many famous magicians of the past, Malini, Okito, Fu-Manchu and others, built up their shows with exotic props such as these while stopping through the Orient. In fact, my teacher, Bobby Baxter recalls how when he was in Hong Kong during the 1960’s, he passed a tailor’s shop who still had a picture of Malini in his window.
Well, I ended up buying a little musical instrument that I needed for my act and later met Tania as planned. (That evening while in the hotel elevator, I listened to another American tourist lamenting to his friend how he had bought an expensive statue at “The Friendship Store” last year on his first visit, and later found the same piece back in America at K-Mart for a fraction of the price.)
Meanwhile, back in downtown Shanghai, we headed over to the river and promenade where one can watch the many small boats and ships as they pass by. As we approached the promenade, peddlers immediately began beseeching us to buy this or that, such as postcards and cheap flutes. This is where being a NewYorker helped and we quickly brushed by them. While leaning over the rail of the promenade and wondering to each other what the various buildings and towers were, a Chinese man came over with a big smile and asked us in fairly good English, “How-are-you-doing?” We smiled and replied that we were fine and asked him, “How are you doing?” He laughed and replied that he was, “How-are-you-doing!” We chuckled at that and he engaged us in conversation and found out that he referred to himself as an “Artist in Paper.” He told us about the various sights and explained that the large, futuristic tower across the river was the TV station and that this was representative of the “New Modern Shanghai.”
He was quite helpful and volunteered much “tourist” type of information as to where to go for cheap shopping, the location of the nearest ATM, etc. Having my camera along, I figured this would be worth a picture or two, so I snapped one of Tania and our friend. A few more pictures in various combinations of us and him were taken and the conversation drifted down a bit.
I was talking to Tania when out the corner of my eye, I noticed our friend had stepped back from us and was taking some paper and scissors out of his pocket. Having been a fan of Dai Vernon (The Professor) since my childhood, I immediately realized that he was cutting my silhouette. In his younger days, Vernon had made quite a good living doing the same on the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The first thing I thought was, “Oh, how nice,” and then realized that our “friend” was going to be expecting some monetary compensation for his trouble even though he had started without asking us.
He cut both of our portraits and by the time he was finishing Tania’s, we had a nice little crowd around us. I took out my wallet and in my best New York accent inquired, “OK, how much?” When he saw a US $20.00 bill he immediately said he “would accept 20 dollars.” I calmly explained to him that that was not going to happen and as we bargained over the price, the crowd began closing in on us. Being new with Yuan (Chinese money) and not wishing the ever curious crowd to see how much I had, I hurriedly gave him the equivalent of $12.00 for both the silhouettes and quickly left. After a moment alone and figuring out how much I had given him, my sunny mood diminished somewhat.
Tania felt stronger about it than I did. She gave me her half of the money and was a bit put out by it all. I chalked it up to experience and that a trip to Shanghai was not complete without being “Shanghai-ed.” So hey, for my 6 bucks I got my silhouette cut, received some shopping advice and found out where the ATM was; not the worst that could happen (I told myself).
Later, when I looked at the silhouette, I noticed that he had sported me with a crew cut and necktie, both of which I did not have, which I thought was funny. As I laughed and put it away, I couldn’t help but think that The Professor was looking down on us, having been “Shanghai-ed,” and having a bit of a chuckle himself.